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How fear of the unknown sows disinformation during a pandemic

What you should know about the coronavirus ‘infodemic’

Illustration by Alex Cochran

SALT LAKE CITY — In the early days of the coronavirus outbreak, Fox News anchor Sean Hannity called the soon-to-be pandemic a hoax. False rumors spread on Twitter that black people and Yemenite Jews were immune to the virus. Celebrity Chris Brown shared an inaccurate audio file on his Instagram account warning that the federal government would institute a lockdown so severe people would not be able to buy groceries.

Ever since the coronavirus began to upended life around the globe, misinformation has been spreading — from the seemingly more mundane, like gargling salt water will prevent or cure the coronavirus (not true) to the more dangerous, like mass public gatherings are acceptable if they are outdoors (also not true). The World Health Organization is calling this other kind of spread an “infodemic,” which they describe as “an overabundance of information — some accurate and some not — that makes it hard for people to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance when they need it.”

Misinformation was already a problem — from a growing anti-vaccination movement to the spread of flat earth theories. Academics warned that fringe groups were bringing the edges to the center, as strange theories populated on the internet moved from merely living on screens to the actual world, where children were catching measles like it was the early 20th century again.

In a recent article, Atlantic science writer Ed Yong wrote about the debate over whether certain kinds of masks are a useful preventive measure against COVID-19. The answer at the time was maybe, maybe not. The only thing he could state definitively was that medical workers need access to N95 masks. Ultimately, Yong concluded, masks are “emblematic of a world that is changing so quickly, no one has time to take a breath.”

Being informed has never been more vital. But there’s also so much information to keep track of and the answers we want, like when will this be over, are elusive.

“When information is uncertain and anxiety is high, the natural response for people is to try to ‘resolve’ that uncertainty and anxiety ... to figure out what is going on and what they should do about it,” Kate Starbird, a crisis researcher at the University of Washington, wrote in a post about understanding COVID-19 misinformation.

That leads to what Starbird terms “collective sensemaking,” which she says is a normal response to disasters. But while that process is natural, it “can also produce rumors, including rumors that turn out to be true and rumors that turn out to be false.”

Uncertainty can feed misinformation

“Misinformation comes from two places: one where people are negligent and not respecting others’ authority and one that’s deliberate,” said Leysia Palen, a professor at the University Colorado Boulder in the department of information science and leader in the crisis informatics field.

Palen has been researching crisis informatics for the past 15 years. She has studied how people use social media and respond to scientific information when different kinds of disasters — such as hurricanes, hit.

The natural response to uncertainty, Palen explains, is to fill in the gaps. During hurricanes and other natural disasters, people often crowdsource information. If they think there is a chance that the information could help their friends and neighbors, they will pass it on.

The COVID-19 pandemic is a new kind of disaster — the closest parallel seems to be the spread of the Spanish flu in 1918. Palen hasn’t lived through or really studied anything quite like it before. She, like all scientists and researchers, is learning about the virus in real time.

People are watching science unfold — usually the general public would see the end result of years of data gathering, experimenting, replication and carefully reviewed and tested results. Instead, health experts are gathering new data every day and must make the best decisions possible with limited information, pivoting to new strategies and recommendations as they learn more.

As experts in the field work to understand COVID-19 as quickly as they can, the rest of us are left with what Palen describes as “chronic uncertainty.”

Which leads to one of the places misinformation comes from: a failure to acknowledge that there are different kinds of authority and expertise, Palen said. Part of what makes the spread of misinformation during COVID-19 so different is that some of that information is originating from the White House — from claims that anyone who wants to get tested can (they cannot) to comparisons of the novel virus to flu (there is currently no vaccine for COVID-19, it appears to be more contagious, plus many other reasons the two are not similar).

There have also been instances where individuals without backgrounds in medicine put forth their own theories, such as the NYU law professor who came up with his prediction of the death rate from COVID-19 which were quickly surpassed. He initially wrote that deaths wouldn’t surpass 500 in the United States (it surpassed 800 towards the end of the month), then revised his number to 5,000 (as of April 3 there have been 5,443).

Believe in the math

More than anything, the efforts to communicate the risks of COVID-19 are like the stop smoking campaigns of the ’60s and ’70s, Palen said.

We may never know how many lives were saved by social distancing, because it will be defined by an absence. But we have to believe that the absence of deaths or cases was because we stayed at home, Palen said.

“You have to believe in the math and the people who are doing the math,” she explained. “You have to believe that those simulations will become real, to then take action.”

Explaining “collective risk,” something we aren’t used to dealing with in the U.S., is an important part of conveying the specific risks of COVID-19, Palen said. When a hurricane hits, your decision not to evacuate won’t affect your neighbor’s ability to leave.

There’s a lot of ambiguity and uncertainty right now, and that makes it harder to communicate a simple message. In the meantime, the best approach is to focus on what we do know, like washing your hands and staying inside as much as possible.

Setting timelines for social distancing measures or stay-at-home orders can be helpful, but it’s also important for local, state and federal officials to explain that those timelines could be extended and what factors will affect those decisions.

Palen believes that while some of the risk communication has been imperfect, leaders have been able to convince many people that their health is at greater risk than their pocketbooks.

Part of the messaging is clearly working.

“It took decades for smoking to become taboo, and so, for interacting with people to become taboo within a week is a really big deal,” Palen said.

Stopping the spread of misinformation

For all the misinformation and unknowns, there are some important things we do know about the coronavirus, Peter Adams, senior vice president of education at the News Literacy Project, said. And, there are ways we can help ourselves stay informed without getting mired in misinformation.

Adams recommended that we stop media grazing, i.e. mindlessly scrolling through Twitter and Facebook, sharing whatever seems true.

To combat misinformation, tech companies are taking some measures, from promoting credible sources such as the CDC to removing false information. For example, Facebook took down Brazillian president Jair Bolsonaro’s video claiming that hydroxychloroquine “is working in all places,” when in reality it is still being tested. Twitter locked the account of The Federalist after the publication tweeted a link to an article suggesting young people go out and attempt to contract the virus to build immunity.

Instead of relying on social media, the best way to stay informed (and not completely overwhelmed) is to look to the CDC, your local health department, plus, choose one local and one national outlet to keep up to date, Adams said. The News Literacy Project also developed a checklist to help determine whether a piece of information is credible. The first two steps are simple enough: be aware of your emotions and pause.

“Part of the reason that WHO called it an infodemic was just the overabundance of information that drowned out authoritative sources,” Adams explained.

“One way people can combat that is to just pick up that mental habit of saying, ‘I’m going to deliberately look for actionable information right now and these are my set sources for that.’”

Staying focused in our attempts to be informed is the best way to combat misinformation. Before you share an article, pause, breathe and do your research.